Like most NBA players Paul Pierce doesn’t tend to show up at many games when he’s not a participant. After you live in the arena, why would you choose to go to watch the show?
But Pierce made an exception in 2001 to watch Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Sixers, or more specifically, between Los Angeles and Allen Iverson. That season belonged to Iverson from the time they threw the ball up on opening night until the time he stepped over Ty Lue at the end of Game 1 of that series.
As it turned out that first game would prove to be Iverson’s nadir in the NBA. The Lakers recovered from that opening loss and steamrolled Philly ‘ cut their hearts out, as Kobe Bryant said ‘ en route to the Lakers first title of the Kobe-Shaq era.
Word began to filter out before Wednesday’s game with the Celtics and A.I.’s old team that Iverson was going to call it a career. Things had gone south quickly in Memphis and when even the Knicks passed on taking on the mercurial guard, his options were basically down to nobody.
Probably. Most NBA observers at the TD Garden likened the ‘announcement’ (Iverson himself has not spoken about it) as a sort of boxing retirement. Rather than leave himself out there twisting on the NBA waiver wire like a journeyman looking to catch on for one more paycheck, the move was seen as a matter of saving face.
Procedurally, it means nothing. Since he is not under contract to any team Iverson does not have to file official retirement papers with the league and therefore is still free to sign on with anyone who might have an immediate opening for a scoring guard, however unlikely that scenario may be.
Danny Ainge told the Herald this week that the Celtics have had internal conversations about Iverson but couldn’t come to a consensus and it’s doubtful that any organization would take a chance on him after the debacle in Memphis.
If this is the end, the other Celtics veterans spoke glowingly about Iverson. ‘I’m just happy I had a chance to play against him,’ Pierce said. ‘He’s one of the top 50 players to ever play the game.’
Of all the Celtics, none has competed against Iverson more than Ray Allen. From their Big East days to their battle in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals — still one of the great underrated series of the past decade — and on through the years, the two came into the league in the same draft class and the news made Allen a little wistful.
‘We had a long standing history,’ Allen said. ‘It’s somewhat sad. He’s been someone who’s been good for a long time in this league. He’s someone I always competed with for a majority of my career. Not only do I think about him, but I think about my whole class and all the guys that I started with and fell off and before you know it, it’s a generation past. This is like gravy time for me to still be able to play and feel good about it and be strong. My body still feels great and fresh.’
Allen was asked to reflect back on that Sixers-Bucks series when Milwaukee had Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell and the Sixers had, well, they had Iverson and a rock solid defense anchored by Dikembe Mutombo.
‘There was a lot of back and forth,’ Allen said. ‘It was a great series. The one thing about that series was anyone could have won it. We felt we had a great team that could have beat the Lakers that year. I guess it’s something you always talk about.’
That Sixers team came about at exactly the right time in the city of Philadelphia and left a lasting, indelible image. After they beat the Bucks in Game 7 the streets were clogged around City Hall and a most curious thing happened in the city of Brotherly Love ‘ people actually showed each other love, pouring out of gridlocked cars and literally dancing in the streets.
Things may have unraveled in the aftermath, but like Pedro pitching for the Sox in the late 90’s, the city stopped when Iverson was playing.
‘He’s in that five or six,’ said Rasheed Wallace, native son. ‘If he was to go walk in Philly right now everybody would be like, ‘Damn what’s up, A.I.?’ You’re the man and this and that. He’s up there in that elite class with Mo, Doc, Fo, Fo, Fo, Feets, Hersey the Hawk, Bobby Jones. You definitely have to have Chuck in there. It can go in any type of order depending on who you’re talking to that knows their Philadelphia basketball history.’
For the uninitiated that would be Mo Cheeks, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones, whose name was so perfect he didn’t need another one. Chuck was Bubba Chuck, Iverson’s other nickname. The one his friends call him as opposed to the ones given to him by marketers and the TV commentators.
Indelible yes, but Iverson also came with baggage. Lots and lots of baggage. His critics have had a field day of late with Iverson’s claims that he wouldn’t play a limited role for the Grizzlies and the Pistons the year before. They point to the fact that the Sixers got better when they traded him and that the Nuggets became a contender when they swapped him for Chauncey Billups.
It’s become harder for his defenders to make his case, especially when the basketball truths seem so self-evident that Iverson’s singular style has become more detriment than positive.
‘It’s hard,’ Allen said. ‘He had issues in Memphis. What are other teams thinking? It’s hard to say. Overseas looks very attractive if he feels like he’s got basketball left in him. I’m sure he can make a good sum of money going overseas. Whether it’s it for him in the NBA, I would think that basketball isn’t out of his blood.’
That’s the toughest thing about Iverson’s ‘retirement,’ and why that word needs to have quotes around it. Iverson may not be done with basketball, but basketball may be done with him.